How did the arrival of the English impact the Abenaki?
The arrival of English settlers in substantial numbers dramatically changed the traditional ways of the Abenaki. Indigenous peoples had already experienced the societal disruption caused by the epidemic, which had decimated their numbers in the 1610s. By the 1620s, the Abenaki were also confronted with an ever-growing number of English adventurers, merchants, and settlers. As elsewhere in Britain’s North American colonies, the English showed little respect for indigenous society or culture.
For much of the 17th century, the Abenaki were guided by Passaconaway. He was the leader of the Penacooks, an Abenaki tribe living in the Merrimack Valley, but he also headed the most powerful indigenous confederacy in what is today northern New England. His influence extended from Lake Winnipesaukee to central Massachusetts and eastward to Piscataqua and coastal Maine. The Abenaki believed him to have mystical powers that allowed him to control the elements (such as wind and storms), transform into the shapes of animals (particularly bears), and foretell the future. He is thought to have been born sometime around 1585 and most likely lived well into the 1660s and possibly beyond. When the English began arriving in New Hampshire in the 1620s, Passaconaway urged the Abenaki to accept them and live in peace. Oral tradition claims that Passaconaway was influenced by a vision that foretold the role the English would assume in the region and that the Abenaki would fare better by welcoming them than fighting them. Such a view was also in accord with the Abenaki’s traditional beliefs of resolving conflict peaceably.
The presence of the English immediately changed the Abenaki’s way of life, as the survivors of the epidemic living along the coast were pushed off their land to make way for English settlement. The Abenaki quickly became trading partners in the remorseless English pursuit of beaver pelts. As the 17th century progressed, the Abenaki found themselves increasingly marginalized and isolated from this new society the English were establishing in New Hampshire.
Sometime around 1660, Passaconaway stepped back from his leadership role among the Abenaki and was succeeded by his son Wonalancet, who advocated the same conciliatory approach as his father had in regard to the English. However, tensions between the English and the Abenaki rose in the 1670s for a number of reasons:
The English population had grown so large in New Hampshire that it was seriously infringing on the Abenaki, causing substantial displacement and hardship among the indigenous people.
King Philip’s War, the major conflict in southern New England between the English and the indigenous peoples, ended early in 1676 with the almost total defeat of the Wampanoags. Refugees from that conflict moved north and joined the Abenaki in New Hampshire. Having just lost their homes and seeing their tribal structure dismantled, the Wampanoags were far less interested in peace than were the Abenaki.
Wonalancet was succeeded by his son, Kancamagus, sometime in the late 1670s, and Kancamagus took a more aggressive attitude toward the English, possibly because he foresaw the Abenaki’s displacement from their traditional lands.
France, Britain’s traditional enemy, had established a firm foothold in Canada (called New France) by the 1670s and embarked on a policy of harassing English settlements in the New World. The French treated the indigenous population with more respect, forging alliances with several tribes against the British. Every time relations between France and Britain broke down, the French encouraged their Abenaki allies to increase their attacks on English settlements in New England.
For all these reasons, the 1670s ushered in a period of tension and hostility between the English and the indigenous peoples in northern New England, made worse by the treachery practiced on the Abenaki and Wampanoags at Cochecho (present-day Dover) in September 1676. The Dover settlement was dominated by Richard Waldron, a merchant, trader, adventurer, and militia leader who had moved to the town in the mid-1650s. Waldron was suspicious of the indigenous population—men, women, and children—who had come to the area in the aftermath of King Philip’s War, and, at the urging of the Massachusetts legislature, he devised a plan to ship them to Boston where they could be sold into slavery in the West Indies. He organized a day of recreation for indigenous peoples in the Dover area, offering games, food and drink, and entertainment. About 350 people came to Dover to participate. Once the games were underway, armed colonists moved in and seized them. Waldron separated the Abenaki, who he considered “friendly,” from the Wampanoag. The Abenaki were released and allowed to go on their way, but the Wampanoags were indeed sent to Boston and sold into slavery. The Abenaki considered the entire episode a deep betrayal of their trust and friendship.
Feeling less and less welcome in their own lands, and seeing that they were increasingly outnumbered by the English, the Abenaki began to withdraw from southern New Hampshire in the 1680s under Kancamagus’s leadership. Many went north to indigenous settlements being established in Canada for all those forced out of New England by the English settlers; some went east to Maine, which had a substantially smaller English population. Some Abenaki remained, living mostly in the North Country where the English had made little inroads. The Abenaki’s presence was still felt throughout New Hampshire, though, particularly as the English continued to fear Abenaki raids, which were not infrequent during these decades. The English also continued to rely on what the Abenaki had taught them about living in New Hampshire, including a greater understanding of the area’s geography, hunting and fishing techniques, and the use of the region’s natural resources.
Tensions remained high between the English and the indigenous population even after most of the Abenaki left New Hampshire, mainly because Britain and France became engaged in a protracted conflict, King William’s War, beginning in 1688. At the instigation of the French, Abenaki raiding parties from Canada or Maine regularly descended on English settlements in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The most devastating of these raids for New Hampshire occurred in July 1694, when roughly 250 Abenaki from Maine attacked part of the Dover settlement known as Oyster River. Dozens of settlers were killed, and dozens more were captured and taken for ransom. Most of the houses and structures in the Oyster River settlement were burned as the Abenaki left a six-mile path of destruction down the banks of the river. Known as the Oyster River Massacre, the attack curtailed the spread of English settlements in New Hampshire for at least a decade. Although Abenaki raiding parties from Canada remained common until the 1750s, relations between indigenous peoples and the English began to stabilize shortly after 1713 when a treaty was signed by New Hampshire’s colonial government and the Abenaki.